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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Intrigue Behind a Sitting Bull Painting: The Little-Known Story of Artist Caroline Weldon

Sometimes the curious, behind-the-scenes stories of museum artifacts are as intriguing as the actual pieces. In the little-known story of a painting of Hunkpapa Lakota leader Sitting Bull hanging in the State Museum, the art, the subject, and the artist all share remarkable roles.

Painting of sitting bull with tear in it

Sitting Bull portrait by Caroline Weldon 1890 (SHSND 12319)

I’ve walked past this 1890 oil painting of Sitting Bull, or Tatanka Iyotanke, hundreds of times during my museum career. I’ve squinted behind the glass case at the amateur painting and the scrawled signature of “C. S. Weldon” with no recognition. It wasn’t until artist Caroline Weldon (December 4, 1844–March 15, 1921) became the celebrated protagonist of the 2018 motion picture Woman Walks Ahead that I—and many of our museum visitors—learned the fascinating story of this unusual woman’s courage and determination.

Woman Walks Ahead is loosely based on Weldon’s life from 1889 to 1891, when she traveled twice from her East Coast home to Standing Rock Indian Reservation as an activist to help Sitting Bull and additional tribes resist US government proposals to break treaties. Her lifelong fascination with Native American culture had begun in her teen years, and her passion for Indigenous justice led her to later join the National Indian Defense Association. As a single woman in her forties, she traveled to meet Sitting Bull at Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which crossed the borders of North Dakota and South Dakota.

1889 Treaty Map

Breakup of the Great Sioux Reservation, North Dakota Studies (ndstudies.gov)

When she arrived, Weldon served in unofficial capacities as Sitting Bull’s translator and lobbyist, and even lived in his household for a time. An amateur artist, she also painted up to four portraits of Sitting Bull. Her life choices were rare both in terms of 19th-century activism and for a single woman in the Victorian era, and the tribe gave her the name “Woman Walking Ahead.”

Catherine Weldon and another lady outside with a house and trees in the background

Caroline Weldon, later in life (SHSND 21405 00002)

Not everyone appreciated Weldon’s efforts. Her unconventional Indigenous rights campaign as a single, white, outspoken woman of the late 1800s created a national stir. Criticized by many, Weldon was unjustly vilified in headlines nationwide.

Weldon left the reservation just weeks before Sitting Bull’s death and became a footnote in history. Her painting was hanging in Sitting Bull’s cabin on Dec. 15, 1890. On that morning a gunfight broke out when Indian agency police came to arrest him, and Sitting Bull and others were killed. Shortly afterward, a police officer whose brother had just been killed smashed the painting with his rifle, tearing the canvas. US Cavalry officer Matthew F. Steele stopped further destruction, took the painting, and later purchased it from Sitting Bull’s widows for two dollars. 1

Closeup of tear in Sitting Bull painting

The canvas was damaged when smashed by a rifle.

Steele’s purchase apparently went unnoticed. In a few scattered mentions about Weldon’s painting over the following decades, historians muse about this painting and her others as being missing. A 1964 article in The West refers to Weldon’s painting as “a picture, now lost, bearing the artist’s sketched initials in the bottom left corner.” 2

I can only guess that State Historical Society staff must have been unaware of the handful of historians still speculating about the painting’s whereabouts, because Weldon’s canvas, with a crudely repaired tear and a replaced frame, had been gifted to the State Historical Society by the Matthew F. Steele estate in November 1953. In a North Dakota History article of 1984, a staff member wrote about the Steele donation: “The location of the only one of Weldon’s Sitting Bull portraits is now known.” 3

Our Caroline Weldon painting can be viewed on exhibit at the State Museum, and a second Weldon painting of Sitting Bull is housed at The Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.

Portrait of Sitting Bull

Sitting Bull by Catherine Weldon, 1890, oil on canvas. From the Permanent Collection of the Historic Arkansas Museum, Little Rock, Arkansas

Woman Walks Ahead mentions our State Museum as the location of a Weldon painting, which created a flurry of national interest in her work. We’ve enjoyed welcoming visitors from across the country who have come to view it since the film’s release.

Man and two young girls standing in front of Sitting Bull painting

After watching Woman Walks Ahead with their dad, these two Florida girls requested a family vacation to North Dakota to view Caroline Weldon’s Sitting Bull painting. The family made the trip a few months ago.

It’s fitting that this misunderstood woman, lost in history, is finally having her day in the sun. Caroline Weldon is worth remembering as a courageous activist who sought to build cross-cultural friendships and implement positive national changes while knowing her actions would rankle some and infuriate others. I’m enjoying seeing the increased visitor traffic to respectfully view Weldon’s special painting and learn more about a controversial time in our nation’s history. And I’ve gained a deeper appreciation, not only of a piece of art, but of the remarkable artist behind the story.

1 “Catherine Weldon, Sitting Bull,” North Dakota History 72, nos. 3 & 4 (2005): 12.
2 “Was Mrs. Weldon Sitting Bull’s White Squaw?,” The West, October 1964, 67.
3 Robert C. Hollow, “Portrait of Sitting Bull by Caroline Weldon,” North Dakota History 51, no. 2 (Spring 1984): back cover.

Guest Blogger: Kim Jondahl

Kim JondahlKim is Director of the Audience Engagement and Museum division. She oversees the division’s planning of audience experiences, marketing, education, as well as the museum collections and exhibits management.

Two Forts: 60 Years and 60 Miles Apart

Stone marker for Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site

State Historical Society of North Dakota marker at the Fort Mandan Overlook State Historic Site 11.5 miles west of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, ND. (Photo by Doug Wurtz, 2018)

While investigating archaeological sites and collections managed by the Archaeology & Historic Preservation Division, a question will inevitably arise that requires a trip to the State Archives for more research. For the last three years, I have been researching the little-known story of the “Galvanized Yankees” (1st United States Volunteer Infantry, aka 1st USVI) at Fort Rice, Dakota Territory. Another story I have spent quite a lot of time researching is the 1804–1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, the “Corps of Discovery.” Only recently, while I was putting some notes together about the Galvanized Yankees, did I notice the similarity between the two stories.

Both are about the westward expeditions of men whose homes were in the eastern United States, far from Dakota Territory. Men from Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and other states would play key roles in both journeys.

Upon arriving in what is now North Dakota, the Corps would spend the winter of 1804–1805 at Fort Mandan, 60 miles (as the crow flies) northwest of the fort the Galvanized Yankees would occupy 60 years later at Fort Rice in 1864–1865.

Both expeditions traveled up the Missouri River to reach their first winter’s destination.
The Corps left St. Louis and traveled by keelboat, by pirogue, and by foot to Fort Mandan.
The 1st USVI traveled by train to St. Louis and then by steamboat and on foot to their winter home at Fort Rice. Both expeditions were under the orders of a U.S. president; the Corps under orders from President Thomas Jefferson, the 1st USVI from President Abraham Lincoln.
They both spent their first winters in crude accommodations built from cottonwood logs cut nearby.

Each expedition included one woman. Sakakawea, a Lemhi Shoshone living with the Hidatsas, accompanied the Corps of Discovery to the West Coast. Elizabeth Cardwell, the wife of Private Patrick Cardwell of the 1st USVI, accompanied her husband to Dakota Territory. Both women had babies who became a prominent character in each story. Sakakawea’s son, “Pomp” (Jean Baptiste Charbonneau), was born just prior to the expedition and traveled to the West Coast and back with his mother. Cardwell’s baby, a daughter, was born at Fort Rice and died seven days after her birth. Cardwell had been pregnant with the baby on the last 250-mile march to Fort Rice.

Both expeditions included at least one well-known encounter with Native Americans. Meriweather Lewis, co-commander of the Corps, killed a Blackfoot warrior in a skirmish in the Marias River country of present-day Montana on July 26, 1806. If not for the superior firepower of Lewis and his men, they could have been killed by the Blackfoot warriors, and the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition would have ended much differently. The 1st USVI was attacked on July 28, 1865, at Fort Rice by Native American warriors under Hunkpapa Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Gall. If not for superior firepower on the part of the military, the fort could have been overrun and destroyed that day, changing the story of the Galvanized Yankees and military forts on the Upper Missouri River.

Tree and remnants of corner markers of office at Fort Rice State Hstoric Site

A portion of the parade ground (right) and corner markers of the post adjutant’s office at the Fort Rice State Historic Site, 27 miles south of Mandan, ND. The winter barracks of the 1st United States Volunteer Infantry would have been located behind the two trees at the center of the photograph. (Photo by Doug Wurtz, 2017)

The mission of each expedition also had some parallels. The Lewis and Clark Expedition was instructed to explore unknown territory, establish trade with Native Americans groups, affirm the sovereignty of the United States in the region, and find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean. The mission of the 1st USVI was to explore unknown territory, establish safe trade routes for immigrants to the gold fields of Montana and Idaho, proclaim the sovereignty of the United States (to the Native Americans), and monitor the waterway of the Missouri River.

When I began to research these topics, I viewed them as entirely separate stories. But anyone who has worked with archival records knows that it often leads to unexpected discoveries and insights. My archival research showed that though the stories of the Corps of Discovery and the Galvanized Yankees were 60 years and 60 miles apart, history was, in many ways, repeating itself.